One of the most frequent questions that a tattooed person hears, right after "Did that hurt?" is the question "Why did you do it?" This is a question that has as many variations as there are tattoos and tattooed people in the world. Some of the reasons can seem contradictory, but the most important thing to remember is that they are personal.


Tattooing can be done to fit in. In tribal societies where tattooing was done ritually, it often represented a part of the transition from childhood to adulthood and everyone went through this process. Team logos, military insignia or other designs that signal an affiliation are all inclusive tattoos. They signal that the wearer is part of the club. However, tattooing can also be chosen as a way of standing out from the rest of society. If tattooing is a frowned-upon custom, the wearer can be making a statement of standing away from the crowd. Western culture is currently experiencing a shift from away from the idea that only sailors, bikers and roughnecks get tattooed. A example of tattooing that is both exclusive and inclusive can be seen in the body art of the Yakuza gangsters in Japan. A certain amount of conformity is part of the cultural norm, and these gang members not only signify their defiance of societal standards, but prove their devotion and commitment to their own isolated group with their full-body tattooing.

Position and Rank

Tattooing has been used historically to denote both high class segments of society and to indicate criminal elements. Again, the fact that not all of a culture was tattooed allowed skin marking to have these functions. In the Polynesian and Maori cultures, higher castes and royalty wore more elaborate skin art than commoners. Traditional Samoan tattooing included patterning to represent family histories. In ancient China, petty thieves were visibly tattooed on their faces so that everyone would know of their offenses.

Transition and Remembrance

People sometimes choose to get tattooed as a way of remembering a period or transition in their lives. Ancient Hawaiians would tattoo their tongues as a sign of mourning when a loved one died. In modern Western culture, people get tattooed not only as a sign of remembrance, as with the vast surge of firefighter tattoos after 9-11, but as a celebration of new life, such as the birth of a child or the gaining of sobriety.

Beauty and Empowerment

Tattooing is also done as an aesthetic alteration of the body. Some skin markings are seen as signs of beauty whereas others symbolize the gaining of power or prestige. In North Africa, many tribes tattooed tiny groupings of dots on women’s arms or faces, supposedly to ward off evil influences. Warrior cultures have used tattooing as a way of making the appearance more fierce. Whatever the reason, anyone who decides to get tattooed should only do it for themselves. Getting tattooed at the request or desire of another has a tendency to produce skin art that does not make the wearer happy in the long term.

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